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A Personal Touch at Duty's End

Arlington Ladies add comfort to funerals at Arlington National Cemetery

On any weekday in Arlington National Cemetery, as many as 30 war dead and veterans are laid to rest.

The funeral ritual includes a spit-and-polish honor guard, the sharp crack of a rifle volley, a bugler's mournful taps and the presentation of a folded American flag. Then comes a moment of comforting.

An Arlington Lady quietly speaks to the family and gives an envelope to the next of kin.

"A military funeral is very precise," says Margaret Mensch, chairman of the Army Arlington Ladies. "We give the personal touch."

In swelter and snow, Arlington Ladies ensure that no active-duty or veteran soldier, sailor, airman or Coast Guardsman is buried alone.

The envelopes contain a condolence card from the armed service's chief of staff and a note that the Arlington Lady has handwritten, often after researching the service member online.

Sandra Griffin

T.J. Kirkpatrick/Redux

Sandra Griffin, a U.S. Air Force veteran, volunteers as an Arlington Lady for Air Force funeral ceremonies.

Arlington Ladies began in 1948, when Air Force chief of staff Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg and his wife, Gladys, noticed that sometimes only the military chaplain was present at Arlington funerals. Someone from the Air Force family should always be there, they agreed, and she recruited friends at the Officers' Wives Club.

In 1973, Julia Abrams, wife of Army Gen. Creighton Abrams, formed an Army wives' group. A Navy group started in 1985, and the Coast Guard followed in 2006. A representative of the Marine commandant's office attends every Marine funeral.

Altogether, about 200 women (in the past, their numbers also included two men) participate in the program at any given time. Each has a connection to the service as wife, mother, widow or veteran.

Arlington Lady Paula McKinley

Rachel Larue/Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington Lady Paula McKinley regularly attends Navy funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.

One day a month, Sandra Griffin, 52, who retired as a major after 23 years on active duty, writes sympathy notes to Air Force families she's never met and attends funerals. "It's a way to still serve," she says. "It's a comfort to the families. Some reach out to hold your hand and say 'Thank you.' "

The total number of funerals Arlington Ladies have attended is not known, but to give an idea, the Army volunteers have witnessed almost 30,000 funerals since 2000.

Ladies wear name badges and have a military escort. Each group has its own rules. For example, Navy Ladies also attend funerals of spouses of living servicemen and veterans.

"We're not there as a sympathizer or mourner" but as a witness, says Nancy Reed, cochair of the Air Force group.

Paula McKinley, an Arlington Lady for 25 years and chair of the Navy group, calls their participation "a team effort."

Joyce Johnson became an Army Arlington Lady four years after her husband, Dennis, 48, was killed on 9/11 in the attack on the Pentagon and buried at Arlington. "We do it from our hearts," she says. "My heart breaks at every funeral."

One unwritten rule applies to all Arlington Ladies: They don't cry. Ever. "Once in a while you come close to tears — when it's a young active-duty soldier, a young widow and young kids," Mensch says. "But you don't cry."

Marsha Mercer is an independent journalist in Northern Virginia.

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